Written evidence from Solace Women’s Aid
Solace Women’s Aid (Solace) was established over 45 years ago and is one of the single largest providers of services for victim/survivors of male violence against women and girls (VAWG) in the UK. In 2020/21 we worked with 23,461 women and children across our prevention and support services.
The Victims’ Bill is a seminal opportunity to shape the way advocacy services for victim/survivors of VAWG and children who are victim/survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence are designed, commissioned and delivered.
Our key recommendations are that the Bill:
Whether the legislative steps proposed by the Government will lead to an improvement in the commissioning of support services?
As currently drafted, we do not believe that the Victim’s Bill will lead to the necessary cultural shift in commissioning of support services for victims and survivors of male violence against women and girls. The Government’s proposal to introduce a duty to collaborate in the provision of victim support functions (set out in clause 6) is unlikely to see dramatic change in the current funding landscape or improvement in commissioning processes. Whilst we welcome the need for relevant authorities for each policing area to publish a strategy under clause 6(2),this should also be accompanied by a duty to commission a needs assessment.
Ensuring sufficient community services
Despite more survivors seeking help through community-based services than accommodation services, community-based services tend to be commissioned with insufficient funding to meet demand for services to cover all elements of service delivery. Solace supported nearly 7,000 survivors in community-based services, compared to 1,000 survivors in refuges in 2020/21. SafeLives reported nearly 70% of survivors who seek help remain at home, so only access services that are provided in the community.
While refuge and accommodation-based support is crucial for women at high risk of serious harm or murder in their homes and those facing homelessness, many of the women supported by community-based services and remain in their home are also high risk. SafeLives estimated in 2020 that more than 65,000 adults and 85,000 children at the highest risk of serious harm or murder were being supported by community-based services.
The shortfall in funding can also be seen from Women’s Aid’s annual survey of organisations that provided community-based services in 2019-20, which found that 10% of organisations indicated that the funding from commissioning only covered half of support staff costs or less (e.g. staff salaries and employment costs); 30% said it covered half or less of their central costs (e.g. contribution to management, finance and premises); and 22.5% responded that it covered none of their activity costs (e.g. direct delivery costs such as interpreters, service user welfare, childcare). Only 35% of organisations felt commissioning covered all of their staffing costs. 7
To ensure that we see the significant improvement in commissioning of community services that is needed to ensure all survivors/victims are supported, we believe the Government should introduce a statutory duty on relevant bodies (including Police and Crime Commissioners, Integrated Care Boards and local authorities) to commission community-based services from specialist VAWG and led ‘by and for’ services. We would support this duty being similar to Part 4 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 for accommodation-based services, learning lessons from the implementation of that duty to date and ensuring sufficient time and resources for success.
The statutory duty should provide support to all victims and survivors, including children and young people, wherever they live and regardless of their immigration status. The duty should:
We are also concerned that the duty to collaborate will not lead to the cultural shift in the type of support victims/survivors of VAWG need. A lot of the focus on domestic abuse tends to be on crisis point and safety. While having services in place to support women and children to safety is crucial, local authorities do not always commission the longer-term case work that is needed by survivors and counselling and therapeutic services as part of their core offer.
We would also recommend that clause 6(4) is strengthened to ensure that a needs assessment is required, rather than considered, by local commissioners on community-based services. We are pleased to see that the Bill would set out that any needs assessment would need to look at the particular needs of those with protected characteristics which mean that they may experience barriers to using generic support services (such as children, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) victims, ethnic minority victims, deaf or disabled victims, and victims with specific needs due to their sex); existing local and national provision (in order to be aware of what is already available to victims in their local area and avoid duplication). As community services often do not meet the needs of marginalised women, it is crucial that a thorough needs assessment is required by all areas before a strategy is developed.
We would also ask that such mandatory needs assessments should look into the need for support for women who have experienced multiple forms of disadvantage including substance misuse and street homelessness in addition to domestic abuse/sexual violence. We run several projects working with women who have experienced multiple forms of disadvantage including VAWG, street homelessness, problematic substance use, and complex mental health needs. Support for women in these groups are some of our most precarious services because they are not funded as part of core services so organisations tend to look to central Government grants for opportunities, which has meant year on year uncertainty for the staff and for the women with whom it can take months or years to build trust with. These projects lead to incredible outcomes for some of the most vulnerable and marginalised women. Of 54 women supported by our assertive outreach partnership project (WiSER) over a two-year period, 78% were supported into safe housing and the number in contact with a perpetrator was significantly reduced.
Whether the steps outlined by the Government will lead to increased awareness and effectiveness of the ISVAs and IDVAs?
Independent Domestic Violence Advocates (IDVAs) offer information, advocacy and specialist services to increase victim and survivors’ safety and meet a range of needs – these can include ongoing safety concerns, emotional or housing support, legal options, reporting to the police, help around child contact, benefits and financial advice. IDVAs usually hold cases for 3 months but can work with clients for up to 6 months.
IDVAs are integral to the wider network of support services available for victim/survivors of domestic abuse, and are often the central link in domestic abuse cases, performing a core function in ensuring all other agencies deliver the support they are supposed to deliver.
Independent Sexual Violence Advocates (ISVAs) are specialist advocates with specific knowledge around the Criminal Justice system (CJS) as it relates to rape and other sexual offences, they play a similarly crucial role for victims/survivors of sexual violence, particularly as they navigate the criminal justice process.
We are therefore pleased that the Government has acknowledge the role they play and seeking to define their roles through a statutory definition and guidance. This will allow them to have the respect they deserve in multi-agency settings and increase their ability to advocate for victims/survivors.
IDVAs and ISVAs are dependent on other agencies fulfilling their roles and functions in order to get the best outcomes for the victim/survivors. In this multi-agency working, IDVAs often have to challenge myths around domestic abuse and the experience of women that may exist in other organisations which can act as a barrier to the victim/survivor getting the help they need.
We believe that defining the IDVA and ISVA role and issuing guidance will:
In producing the statutory guidance, the Government must consult widely and ensure the range of skills and knowledge of advocates is supported and acknowledged, particularly those working in ‘by and for’ services and those specialising in particular areas such as multiple disadvantage IDVAs, mental health IDVAs and housing IDVAs, who develop specialist expertise and can advise colleagues while also holding cases themselves.
Specialised support for victims of stalking
According to the 2019/20 Crime Survey for England and Wales, 3.6 per cent of adults aged 16-74 are estimated to have experienced stalking in the last year – equivalent to 1.5 million people. In 2020, more than 80,000 incidents of stalking were recorded by police officers in England and Wales. In June last year, forces responding to a BBC FOI requests reported just 294 successful applications for Stalking Protection Orders. Despite the clear need, Independent Stalking Advocacy Caseworkers (ISACs) are not routinely commissioned so defining their role would help raise their profile and ensure they are considered in commissioning.
The role of an ISAC is similar to that of IDVAs and ISVAs but with expertise in the particular risks to safety posed by stalkers. Their role is to identify and assess the risk of harm of victim/survivors from intimate partners, ex-partners or family members. ISACs also support victim/survivors in non-domestic related situations, for example if the stalker is a colleague or stranger. As stalking is serial in its nature and takes place over a longer period with fluctuating risk levels, ISACs hold cases for up to a year, compared to IDVAs who generally hold cases for 12 weeks.
There are a number of barriers faced by ISACs. The lack of understanding within criminal justice agencies around the nature of stalking is a huge barrier to victim/survivors getting the help and support they need. In our experience common misconceptions include it being treated as one-off events, organisations not recognising that stalking doesn’t happen continuously and appreciating that a stalker can, and often does, stop for periods and then start again. This presents ongoing safety issues for the victim/survivor, and requires the ISAC to regularly re-risk assess and adapt safety plans.
Stalking cases are also increasing in complexity due to the increased cyber element (100% of calls to the National Stalking Helpline now involve some form of a cyber element, which has increased from 80% in 2019 pre-pandemic)  which is leading to longer police investigations due to the complexities in analysing all of the evidence.
We would therefore recommend that the specialism and importance of stalking advocates is recognised in the Bill by defining them within the legislation.
What implementation, resourcing and accountability challenges exist with respect to the Victims Bill?
The introduction of a statutory duty to commission community services to support VAWG victims/survivors needs to be accompanied by a commitment to multi-year sustainable funding which includes protected and ringfenced allocations for services run by and for Black and Minoritised women, Deaf and disabled women and LGBTQ+ survivors who often face barriers to access community services. It will ensure provision for women with protected characteristics which understands the specific challenges they may face in accessing services.
Properly funded services which include longer term therapeutic support will help to prevent the cycle of re-victimisation, supporting victim/survivors to rebuild their lives and no longer require community-based services.
From a broader funding perspective, we would like to see funding for victims’ services from the Ministry of Justice discharged through MOPAC allocated by specialism, to allow specialist and ‘by and for’ VAWG services to bid for and provide some of these services so that victims and survivors who report to the police as their first engagement with a statutory agency or support service have more options when the police make referrals.
The need for a commitment in increased funding for support services can also be seen by the challenges in accessing advocate services due to the huge demand for specialist VAWG services which far outstrips supply. SafeLives has reported a fall in IDVA provision in England and Wales for the first time in five years. Their research found that there are currently only 66% of the required number of FTE IDVAs in England and Wales to meet the needs of victims at the highest risk of serious harm or murder. In July 2021, Solace’s advice line saw a 67% increase in demand compared to July 2020. Similarly, SafeLives reports almost nine out of ten services in England and Wales had seen an increase in demand since the start of the pandemic. 
This is again why it is crucial that there is a duty to commission, with adequate funding commitments attached to this duty, not just a duty to collaborate as currently set out.
Whether there should be any further measures included in the Bill?
We would recommend that the Bill includes measures to:
As such, Solace continues to call for data sharing to be suspended between the police and the Home Office on victim/survivors with insecure immigration status to stop perpetrators from being able to use this to abuse women and to enable victim/survivors to get the help and support they need. This was also recommended by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) but rejected by the Home Office. Solace supports the recommendation by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner for the Home Office to use the Victims’ Bill as an opportunity to establish a firewall between all statutory services and partnerships and the Home Office alongside safe reporting mechanisms and funded pathways to support and legal advice. Along with a number of specialist organisations supporting migrant victims, we believe a complete firewall would make victim/survivors and witnesses feel confident in approaching the police to report crimes and more likely to engage in criminal proceedings, which will in turn allow the police to hold perpetrators to account. 
We continue to be concerned that the Government is setting out the upcoming Immigration Enforcement Migrant Victims Protocol as their response to supporting migrant victims, as they did for in the Victim’s Bill consultation. Organisations that specialise in supporting migrant victims believe that those with insecure immigration status will avoid reporting to the police if there is any risk or fear of information being shared with the Home Office. As LAWRS have set out “The Protocol would not increase migrant victims' trust in the police because data-sharing with the Home Office (through Immigration Enforcement) will continue and will be expanded. Rather than encouraging victims and witnesses of crime to come forward, the protocol will increase mistrust in the police and other statutory support services. As a result, victims and witnesses of crime will be deterred from approaching any law enforcement agency to report a crime or seek support, and more likely to remain in abusive or exploitative situations.”
We are particularly concerned to see that the Protocol is only set to provide temporary relief from immigration enforcement action to victims whose criminal proceedings are ongoing as this temporary relief gives no guarantees to victims and witnesses of crime prior to reporting, as they do not know if a criminal investigation or related proceeding will take place.